Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Arrival

Look at me! I'm in Thailand! I'm spending six months in the Land of Same Same But Different working for an NGO as a requirement for my masters degree back in New York.

I arrived in Bangkok Sunday morning bright and early - like before 6am. My luggage arrived forty minutes later, on Thai time. I stepped out into the hottest country in the world, armed with a single Thai greeting and a map to my hotel.

Lesson one: Thai people have a hard time understanding that I don’t speak Thai. Ten minutes into the cab ride from the airport, the driver looked at me in the rearview mirror. He had been mumbling in Thai, and must have suddenly realized:

“You speak Thai,” he said. No, I said.

He chortled in deep embarrassment. “You tourism?” he said.

I just said, “Yes,” because I doubted that the phrase “six-month practicum” was in his English vocabulary.

We got lost. We got found. Some very friendly bellhops greeted me in the lobby of the Karmanee Palace Hotel. It was indeed a palace compared to the backpacker guesthouses that I’ve always stayed in most of my adult life. There was granite, or maybe marble. There were chandeliers, and tablecloths, and elevators. There was a complimentary breakfast buffet.

“Sawatdii khap!” they said.

Well, I know that phrase: It means hello.

Unfortunately I didn’t know what the appropriate response was, so I just smiled awkwardly and proceeded to the reception desk. Again, the women behind the counter could not register that I didn’t speak Thai. When they finally did, confusion ensued.

Name please?

I told them.

Write down, please. I did.

They read it as “Jushna.”

No reservation under Jushna, or Justina for that matter. I gave them the name of my supervisor, who had made the reservation. Nothing. I gave them the name of my host organization, Raks Thai. After more confusion, more blank looks, more staring back and forth at me and at each other, they checked me in and summoned the bellhop.

I was finally alone in my hotel room. I had no idea where I was, or how to get around. Two hours in Bangkok and I already felt trapped in my hotel. It was a tiny bit lonely, a tiny bit terrifying.

I needed to call my supervisor to let him know I had arrived, but I didn’t even know how to make a phone call. The bellhop had said to use the phone in my room – and explained it in a voice that suggested he thought I was an idiot for not knowing that there was a phone in every hotel room. But where I come from hotel phones are for people who never went on vacation with their family and watched their mom accidentally use the phone in the hotel room to make a local call and get charged $8.

So I sat on my bed, wondering how to make a phone call. I decided to ponder this question in the shower instead. Ten minutes later I was clean, and my room phone was ringing.

It was my supervisor. He was worried that I hadn’t called earlier. I told him I didn’t know where I could make a phone call. He said that I could call from my hotel room, you know, on the phone that I was using to talk to him. So, in Thailand, hotel room phones are not the world’s lamest scams. Only in America, apparently.

I finally got myself out the door of my hotel room to explore the neighborhood. But not until I had finished examining the mini wet bar, which always reminds me of that line from Blood Diamond where Leo is dancing with Jennifer Connelley and says, “How about we go check out the wet bar in your hotel room?”

And she says, “I’m a print journalist. I drank it.”

Anyway, the wet bar in The Palace only had sodas. And I’m not a print journalist, or a soda fiend. I later learned that the two bottles of water were free though.

I started walking to the Big C. The entire road along the way was lined with food carts. In case none of them offered anything you wanted to eat, there was also a pretty decent market in one of the alleys. I found rambutan! And mangosteen! Mangosteen seems not to be in season, but I made a mental note to come back for some rambutan.

There was also a meat market on the opposite side of the alley, and if you hung a right at the end, you came upon a small clothing market. Man, there’s no shortage of ways to whet your consumerist appetite here. This is a developing country?

The Big C was massive, both on the inside and out. Even if you didn’t see the giant sign that said Big C, there were stands set up selling clothes and food starting right in front of the door and continuing for several blocks. It’s comforting to know that I’ll never go hungry or naked in this country.

Big C is basically like a Walmart Superstore. Groceries, clothes, beauty supplies, electronics, home furnishings, and of course, carts with prepared food.

I needed moisturizer. I left my extra-emollient New York wintertime moisturizer at home, figuring it was probably overkill for a tropical country.

Observation: Every lotion sold in this country wants to turn you white. I really had to search hard to find one that didn’t advertise it’s magical whitening properties. All I wanted was something with sunscreen, not bleach. It’s a bit mysterious, actually, why women wouldn’t fear ending up looking like a Chinese opera singer with all the face-whitening products they’re slapping on.

I finally found one that didn’t say anything about making me look like porcelain goddess, and shelled out a whopping $9 for it. I still haven’t stopped converting prices back to dollars in my head. After all that careful perusing at the store, I got home only to find on the inside packaging: “Naturally lighten your skin.”

Next stop: Chatuchak weekend market, known to tourists as JJ market. Once off the SkyTrain, I saw a sign that said I could get to Chatuchak by cutting through a park. Anything to make time spent frying in the sun shorter and sweeter.

I was approached by a couple guys trying to sell me straw mats so I could sit on the grass next to a rather stagnant-looking pond. They were speaking Thai, obviously, so I shook my head at them and kept walking. They kept following me, speaking Thai and holding an armload of mats. This was awkward. Ignoring people doesn’t work here as well as it does in Kenya, apparently.

"I don't know what you're saying," I said to them. They stopped to let their jaws bounce off the ground a few times. I made my getaway while they looked at each other and discussed why this Thai lady couldn't speak Thai.

Chatuchak market is a bit overwhelming, full of winding stands selling a lot of handcrafted tourist goods – clothes, jewelry, home furnishings, textiles, art, books. And of course, food. Thais never miss a meal, and apparently there’s nothing wrong with having two meals during one meal time.

Note to all: Chatuchak market has tourist prices. A bowl of soup that would normally cost 25 baht cost me 40 baht, and they skimped on the noodles. It was quite disappointing, and I was still hungry.

It was only 4pm and there were still two things on my to do list that would make my day complete: getting a SIM card for my phone, and finding an internet café. My supervisor had said that I might need to go to the mall to get a SIM card, so I found my way to Siam Square.

After marveling once again at the possibility that this might be a developing country, I finally found both an internet café (called True – quite an elaborate internet café experience, and priced to match) and a SIM card. Mission accomplished.

I retreated back to my hotel, with only a pit stop for a bowl of dinner noodles – larger and cheaper than at Chatuchak. I was exhausted, and my feet hurt.

But they were still clean. This is a developing country?

1 comment:

Ebony said...

wow justina, you are so brave. i can't imagine being alone somewhere and not speaking the language. but i bet it's a pretty awesome and eye opening experience. i am way too excited to read the rest of your posts.